Debates between presidential candidates are supposed to help voters make an informed choice every four years.
Now, however, the way the two leading candidates are squabbling over how to run the debates can do almost the same.
Al Gore wants a particular debate format to help him focus on the issues. George W. Bush wants a format to help him focus on character differences.
Both are conducting a day-by-day, sound-bite confrontation over the details of the place, schedule, and questioners.
Both want the debates to play to their strengths, knowing that these close encounters of the debate kind could decide this year's close race.
A revealing debate
But just how each man deals with this confrontation over debates can reveal plenty about what kind of president he might be.
Who will be the first to compromise on this very real issue? Who is misleading us or speaks from the heart? Who will follow what a poll tells him? (Or, as many voters may think, who just looks better on camera?)
Unfortunately, ever since the first presidential debate in 1960, it's been clear that these eyeball-to-eyeball contests are not really debates over issues but merely heated confrontations, like a Spanish bullfight, that exhibit a candidate's character under attack.
They're an antidote to slick TV ads. And they are remembered more for zinging quips ("There you go again") than meaningful airing of views.
It's difficult to even call them debates. Why not "Campaign Survivor"?
They are far from the traditional debating style in academia. The questions are often biased, candidates craftily change the subject, and the allotted time is too short to really debate the complex issues of defense, social programs, the economy, etc.
An unofficial, bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates made up of party veterans and backed by corporate money was supposed to cure all that. It proposed three debates in October, which Gore has accepted.
Bush, who knows Gore's attack-style skill against opponents, wants only one of those types of debate and proposes two others, one on CNN (Larry King) and NBC's "Meet the Press" (Tim Russert) talk shows.
Bush may be right to rebuff the commission (for the wrong reasons - he just wants more variety in style). If these events were really debates on the issues, then the commission should not have excluded two third-party candidates (Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan) based just on their low standing (under 15 percent) in the polls. Both those candidates raise viable issues. And, despite the polls, Nader voters in a few Western states may turn this election.
The commission has lost its credibility on this point. It's helping convert its debates into something close to political advertisements.
Meeting Gore's challenge
Bush has accepted a previous Gore challenge to debate any time, any place - even on Larry King and "Meet the Press." But Gore now wants Bush to accept only the Commission's format. Thus, Bush has turned this debate over debates into an issue of Gore's character (flip-floppiness).
Gore, meanwhile, says Bush's suggested debates won't reach the maximum number of American viewers. He says this is an issue of fairness.
So, in the Gore vs. Bush contest of issues vs. character, it's become a matter of debates vs. what?
May the best debater of debates win.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society